Wednesday, 24 June 2015

67. Wonder: Neuschwanstein Castle

(For the Neuschwanstein Castle preview, please click here.)

Once upon a time, castles were built for defence and defence only. To this end, they were built big and strong and usually somewhere hard to attack. With thick walls and plonked high up on a rock, chiefs and kings and emperors could rule secure in their impregnable fortress. Later, rulers seized upon this big, strong, impenetrable concept and added something else: magnificence. The glory of a castle reflected the glory of its king. They were built to show off. As time went on, castles turned into palaces, and the requirement for defence disappeared. Take a look at the Palace of Versailles. Built by Louis XIV as a calculated display of pomp and majesty, it has no defensive value. It didn't need any. Louis was an absolute monarch in absolute control. People, even commoners, were allowed to stroll through the main gates. They were even obliged to carry swords  - the concierge would supply one if you'd been absent-minded enough to leave yours behind.

So where does this fit in?

It doesn't. Not really. Neuschwanstein Castle is a medieval-style castle perched high in the hills, complete with turrets and towers and all the trappings of a castle prepared to defend an assault. But it was built in the late 19th Century, long after the Middle Ages, when the concept of a castle built for defence was redundant. No attack was ever going to take place. What about glory? Neuschwanstein is a grand expression of over-the-top extravagance. It is indeed glorious. Yet, it was never built to show off. Instead, Neuschwanstein Castle is an ostentatious show of introspection, built by a lonely king all for himself. Tourists today flock by their millions, but it was never built for them. It wasn't built for his subjects, or for the great and the good. It wasn't built for anybody, anybody except King Ludwig II of Bavaria, to allow him to escape into his own world of fantasies. In doing so, he created his own tragic, but very real, fairytale.

Such is Neuschwanstein Castle, a castle with a difference. It overlooks the tiny village of Hohenschwangau, about ten minutes drive from the marginally-less-small town of Fussen, which itself is a couple of hours train journey away from the not-at-all-small city of Munich. That last place very much puts us on the map, in Bavaria, a large and distinctive region of southern Germany. These are the places that Piltup and I found ourselves on a a scorching hot Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at the beginning of June.

And they are very charming places to spend some scorching hot days in early June, I'm happy to confirm. I barely had time to glimpse Munich, enough only for a few evening drinks, a sleep, and to catch a train the following morning, but Piltup assured me it was delightful. It is the capital of Bavaria, which was essentially an independent country right up until the formation of the German Empire in 1871 (the first time that a diverse series of territories became a politically unified nation). As a kingdom, whether independent or not, Bavaria lasted from 1806 to 1918, and Munich was the home of kings, in particular the appropriately-named Munich Residenz. Our friend, Ludwig II (after a couple of days in his surrounds, I feel of him as a kind of friend, albeit an odd and intense one that I probably wouldn't invite to, say, a barbecue) lived in Munich for much of his youth. He stayed there in his adulthood too, though only officially. In reality, he didn't like Munich, and kept his visits brief. In fact, you could say his heart wasn't in Munich. And you'd be right - these days you can find it preserved inside a silver urn inside the Chapel of Grace in the small Bavarian town of Altotting, along with various other Bavarian kings' hearts. The remainder of his body can be found inside the family crypt, in St Michael's Church, in Munich.

Ludwig didn't spend much time in Fussen either, but would surely have passed through from time to time. Not by train – the railway and station there were built in 1889, three years after his death. With the train station being a locus of the small town, Fussen these days is very much a go-between, linking Munich to Neuschwanstein Castle and its surroundings. As such, it's very geared up to tourism, and has plenty of hotels. Piltup and I selected a very pleasant one, a converted mansion, slightly outside of the main centre. Our rooms weren't ready upon our arrival, but we dumped our bags and went back to the train station, just in time to catch a local bus... along with approximately fifty thousand other people.

Yes when I say that Fussen is a go-between for Munich and Neuschwanstein, it really is. A lot of day-trippers from Munich visit, and most of them arrive at noon. This is because of something called the Bayern Ticket, which gives free public transport within all of Bavaria for the day of the ticket. But it only kicks in after 9am. Piltup and I had taken a very quiet 8.53am train, arriving at 11am. But by the time we'd got our bearings and dropped off our bags, we'd just missed the 11.30am local bus, meaning we had to get the next one at noon. This coincided with the first installment of  Bayern Ticket day-trippers. Hundreds and hundred of them, pouring out of Fussen train station like some kind of slurry of sightseeing. The local bus turned into four local buses – the Fussen bus service evidently being wise to this daily rush – and in convoy we arrived in the village of Hohenschwangau, a village already swarming with tour groups and tourists. Here's the ticket office.

(this is actually stolen from Tripadvisor, but accurately represents the real thing)

Yes, it turns out that Hohenschwangau and its main draw, Neuschwanstein Castle, are popular attractions. Very popular. If you fancy visiting them, be prepared to not be alone. These are not hidden gems nestled in a corner of Europe, these are big and bright diamonds that appear to feature in a lot of Asian and American guidebooks. The appeal is obvious. Hohenschwangau is a tiny, picturesque village, so perfect that it almost seems like a pastiche. As Piltup put it, “It's like a village from a Disney cartoon. A setting for one of their perfect fairytale Alpine villages. But," he added, “it's real.”

Yes, it's fantasy, but it's real. That's Hohenschwanau village, and it's Neuschwanstein Castle all over. These days, this tiny village, wholly committed to tourism, is clearly rolling in money, but a century or two ago it would still have been in pretty good nick. That's because in 1833 a castle was built right next to it, in a Neo-Gothic style building upon the ruins of the older citadel of Schwangau, a former knight's castle from the Middle Ages. The new castle was called, appropriately, Hohenschwangau Castle and it was built by Ludwig II's father, Prince Maximilian, later to be King Maximilian II of Bavaria. It became the family's summer home. And it looks pretty damn scenic in its own right.

Neuschwanstein dominates today, easily within sight of Hohenschwangau, but if we're to understand what brought Ludwig II to build Neuschwanstein Castle, we first need to understand Hohenschwangau Castle. We had booked advance tours of both. I'm happy to say that the queue for collecting the advance tour tickets was a lot shorter than the brutal queue for those that hadn't planned ahead - phew. If you're to take any practical travel tips from this review, it's book your tickets in advance. The hour we saved was spent drinking a fine German weissbier in the gardens of a nearby tavern. No, I lie: two fine German weissbiers. What a lovely way to prepare us for some visits to some castles.

Hohenschwangau Castle is a vital part of the Neuschwanstein story and legend. In part, Ludwig II grew up here, and he loved it. It appealed to his precocious sense of a perfect era, the legendary times of chivalry and noble knights. Romantic paintings featuring idealised battle between brave and noble knights decorate the hallways, and the castle is filled with secret doors and passages. It overlooks mountains and lakes and the dainty little village of Hohenschwangau – which you can bet was kept in good order, because Ludwig's father didn't want to live above some slums. It's not difficult to imagine young Ludwig and his brother running around, pretending to be knights, living out wonderfully rich fantasies, in the manner that children have.

The problem is, Ludwig never grew up from this.

So who is this Ludwig character? He was born in August 25th, 1845. Officially at least. In actuality, he was born the day before, half-an-hour before midnight, but the family conspired to delay the records so that he'd share a birthday with his grandfather, King Ludwig I, whose wishes were for a grandson born on the same day. And who, even time itself, would deny a king? Ludwig I was the second king of Bavaria (the first was his father, Maximilian I, who rose from duke to prince and finally to king upon the Kingdom of Bavaria being formed in 1805) and was godson to the (long since-beheaded) Louis XVI, whom he was named after – Ludwig is the German form of Louis. He had been king since 1825 but wasn't to remain king for much longer. In 1848, a scandal linking him to an Irish dancing girl called called Lola (Lola Montez – look her up, she had a very interesting life) reached a crescendo. He was 61, she was 28, and although the relationship may well have been innocent enough, it was enough to scandalise a conservative Bavaria. Added to these pressures, Europe was in a revolutionary kind of mood.  Absolute power by monarch was rapidly going out of fashion. In France, King Louis-Philippe had just been deposed. Ludwig I decided to go likewise. He abdicated, allowing his son and Ludwig II's father, Maximilian II, to take over in the reduced role of constitutional monarch only.

For young Ludwig II, who had just learnt to toddle, this meant his father was king and now had to spend much of his time in Munich, and the palatial but sombre Residenz. King Maxmilian II appears to have been as sombre as his surroundings. He was not a warm father, and Ludwig and his brother grew up in a remote household, without much in the way of affection. Their education was a serious one, focussing on the classical, without much in the way of practical use. Ludwig was never given pocket money and had little idea about its value. Despite being the first heir to the king, Ludwig was not at all groomed to be one. Which is why, when his father died unexpectedly, aged 52, and Ludwig II was suddenly propelled to head of state, he was not at all prepared.

It was 1864 and he was aged 18½, but with the maturity and life experience of someone much younger. He had no idea what to do – but thought he could do it anyway, the most dangerous type of person. He began badly and went downhill from there. Just 18 months into his reign, he found himself propelled into Bavaria's first war in half a century, forced to pick sides in a Prussian-Austrian war. He chose the Austrian side. They lost, and it was the beginning of Bavaria being absorbed into the German Empire, led by Prussia. Introspective by nature – je avoided public appearances, and offended his generals but not attending army manoeuvres – Ludwig stuck his head further into the sand and vanished to a villa retreat, playing in costume and setting off fireworks while the war was being lost. Already, he was talking of abdicating due to poor mental health; already there were grumbles that this really wasn't what kings were made of.

A year later, in 1867, he became engaged to his cousin (very normal practice in royal circles, of course), Princess Sophie Charlotte of Bavaria. This could have been the making of him, for by all accounts she was an attractive, charming character who seemed to like him. But Ludwig spent their engagement being somewhat less than engaged; in the words of the historian, Christopher McIntosh, "Physical signs of passion were restricted to a few chaste kisses which he placed on her brow. When she grew tired of this restraints and once kissed him on the mouth he was so shocked that he nearly broke off the engagement there and then." Poor Sophie. It got worse for her. After postponing the wedding several times, two days before the eventual date, Ludwig called the whole thing off, without explanation. When her father wrote requesting a new fixed date or a withdrawal, Ludwig cancelled completely, blaming her father for tearing them apart!

That's because Ludwig II had another love: Richard Wagner. Not in a romantic sense, but in a wild starry-eyed sense of fandom. Ludwig loved Wagner's operas, and upon becoming king lavished him with money, paying off his debts, and pushing forward new works and performances. Most of all, he loved Wagner's grand themes of chivalry and medieval legend. Wagner was a colossal influence upon Ludwig, but the public grew uneasy about his influence on the young king. When they first met, Ludwig was 18 and Wagner was 49. Wagner was an often controversial figure. These days he is veiled by accusations of antisemitism - and his cause was certainly not helped by having Hitler later being a major fan - but back then it was Wagner's personal life, and rumours of affairs, that made him less appetising to the Bavarian public. Additionally, Wagner wasn't from Bavaria, he was from Saxony, another area of Germany but in essence a foreign country, and the general thought was that this influence on Ludwig wasn't a healthy one. They wanted their king to be a king, not some reclusive puppet of a foreign opera writer. Over the years, the friendship between Ludwig and Wagner went to and fro. Sometimes Ludwig would fund Wagner's entire life, other times he would exile him from Munich altogether. Wagner died in 1883, three years before Ludwig, and it's fair to say that without one, these days we would likely have not heard of the other.

So we have the ingredients of a lonely king with soaring, child-like dreams of medieval fantasy. In 1868, Ludwig decided he wished to build a knight's castle, a theatre in stone for Wagner's characters. He'd been directly inspired by Wagner's Lohengrin and Tannhauser operas and wanted a castle that would incorporate motifs from these. By 1869, Ludwig II oversaw the blasting of some ancient ruins on a rocky plateau near Hohenschwangau village. His knight's castle would be called Neuschwanstein Castle - “New Swan Stone Castle”, the swans being the family symbol. Plans had been drawn up the year before, with Ludwig allowing a theatre set designer called Christian Jank to run wild, coming up with a fantastical faux-medieval riot of imagination. Ludwig loved it.

Jank simply created the look, an actual architect called Eduard Riedel got work underway. He'd worked on many royal commissions, including the restoration of Berg castle for King Maximilian II, so had credentials. He retired in 1874, succeeded by Georg von Dollman, and in 1884 another architect, called Julius Hofmann, succeeded him. The foundation stone was laid on Sep 5 1869. Not far away, in Hohenschwangau Castle, Ludwig was able to watch the entire thing grow via telescope.

The Gateway Building was completed first, from 1870 to 1873. That's the part you have to enter, to see the rest. If Hohenschwangau, half an hour's walk away, seemed too distant, Ludwig was able to stay in the Gateway Building and supervise work up close.

It's a steep half-an-hour's walk, as Piltup and I were to discover. On a hot day – it was approaching 30 degrees Celcius – it was tough work. I assume that Ludwig, being a king, didn't have to become a sweaty mess like the rest of us commoners and tourists. It might have done him some good though. Although a svelte, delicate youth, Ludwig became a lot less so in his later years.

He was even too large for most horses to carry. Likely, to visit his fantasy castle, he did what is popular today among tourists, and took a horse-and-cart. That's what the builders did. Transport of stone and equipment was done by horse-and-cart, with an on-site steam-operated crane and pulley lifting everything into place. It was a massive engineering feat, blending the traditional with the modern, which is very much what Neuschwanstein Castle is.

From a distance, perched on its rocky peak, with a backdrop of dramatic and mighty slopes, Neuschwanstein looks reasonably dainty, a distant fairytale castle nestled among the mountains. Up close, Piltup and I immediately agreed, it has heft. It makes an immediate impression. The entire complex is 130 metres long, and the main tower is a shade over 79 metres high. It looks solid. In one sense, it is a romanticised ideal of a medieval castle. It was never built for defence, it was built just to look pretty. But standing by the base, Piltup and I reckoned that, if push came to the shove, this thing could probably hold its own. It may have been designed by a theatre set designer, but Neuschwanstein is a lot more than a stage cardboard cut-out. This is not a Disney World castle of fibreglass and plastic, this is real. Yet, for all that, there is the element of stage design too. It may not be quite as solid as it seems. The limestone is just a facade, around 20 to 30 centimetres thick, covering a brick construction.

From 1872, Dollman was the architect of the Palas, the main building of Neuschwanstein. In case there's any doubt, that's this part.

It's also where the tour takes place. Like Hohenschwangau, a guided tour is the only way to visit Neuschwanstein. At first, I thought this was pretty annoying, but upon visiting it's obvious that this is the only way to do it. Imagine the alternative: hundreds and hundreds of people squeezing through tight corridors, touching the furniture, the paintings, the decor, the fabrics. It would be awful. It would be like visiting the Palace of Versailles, but worse, with even tighter bottlenecks of crowds, and even less space to appreciate anything. No, the only alternative would be to close it off to the public altogether. So in that light, even if hardly ideal, a tour conducted by a bored German, part-android I believe, who clearly does too many tours each day, makes perfect sense. Also, being German, the tour run extremely punctually. It delights me that latecomers forfeit their ticket and have to queue at the ticket office at the bottom of the hill all over again if they want to visit.

Less forgiveable is the ban on taking any interior photos, because of “copyright”. I did my best to covertly take as many pictures I could, and I've stolen the rest from the castle's website, but I'm not going to tell you which is which (though I'm sure you'll be able to guess).

Just as Ludwig had the exterior of Neuschwanstein Castle built as over-the-top grandeur, the interior was built to match. Grand paintings of mythical sagas – Tannhauser, Gudrun, Sigurd - are everywhere. Swans are in almost every room. The family motif, a symbol of knightly purity, and with an important part by his favourite of Wagner's opera's, Lohengrin, Ludwig styled himself as the Swan King. I particularly liked his bedroom sink.

His bedroom was even more lavish, with his bed a fabulously ornate piece of carved Gothic oak art. How many times did he sleep here. Virtually never.

The Throne Room is fabulous, even if he never quite got round to installing a throne. It has the sense of a Byzantine church interior, a brightly coloured one. The castle authorities have done a great thing with the floor. It's a mosaic and would be very susceptible to wear and tear with many millions of tourists traipsing upon it over the years. So they've overlaid the real thing – or the section tourists walk on – with what appears to be a form of thick linoleum, onto which has been printed an exact copy of the mosaic. The layer of lino is only noticeable upon close inspection – Piltup pointed it out to me – and it ensures the preservation of the real thing and allows people to walk around the room. What a terrific idea.

One of the strangest rooms – hell, the very strangest, there's no competition – is the mini grotto. It comes without warning, incongruously squeezed at one end of a corridor and a regular room. Formed from plaster, it looks like a small cave.

And then there's possibly the grandest of all the rooms, the Singer's Hall. This was designed for banquets and musical performances, but in Ludwig's lifetime was never used. As with the rest of his castle, it remained empty. It wasn't until 1933, and the 50th anniversary of Wagner's death, that it staged a performance, and since 1969 annual concerts are now held there for a week each September.

All this looks pretty medieval, and it is, in a very glorified sense. But Neuschwanstein was very modern too, under the surface. It terms of gadgetry, it was state of the art. It boasted central heating, a top-of-the range kitchen, electric bells to call servants, telephone lines, and a special mechanically-operated dining table that could be hoisted from the kitchen directly into the dining room (so that Ludwig didn't have to see his servants). Ludwig wanted the look of ye olde worlde but the comfort of the modern one.

The thing is, unlike Hohenschwangau, which was a fully-functioning, fully-complete castle, Neuschwanstein was never finished. It never really functioned. In total, Ludwig lived there for a grand total of 172 non-consecutive days. He was the only one, servants excepted, that ever did. The rooms we visited on the tour are pretty much the only ones that were ever finished, around fifteen of over two hundred. Hohenschwangau Castle may today be a museum piece, but you could still imagine life taking place there. With Neuschwanstein, it felt emptier. And that was the finished rooms. The large majority of rooms, unfinished and bare for well over a century, must be eerie, unloved spaces.

It took 14 years for Neuschwanstein to be completed – or for construction to cease, at least. A lot happened in that 14 years...

Significantly, in 1870, there was the Franco-Prussian war, in which Prussia kicked France's ass. Adding further insult the French, Prussia's leader Otto von Bismarck used Versailles as his headquarters to discuss the formation of a German empire (don't worry, France got its own back in 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles was signed there, punishing Germany following the First World War). Bavaria was not permitted to remain neutral and was obliged to take Prussia's side. It soon ceased to be independent as a new Germany begun. Ludwig remained king, but an increasingly powerless one, no longer of a nation, now only a state.

And increasingly, Ludwig, who wanted to be the Swan King, became the Mad King. Whether he was actually mad is up for eternal debate, but his behaviour at the very least developed in a more and more idiosyncratic manner. Building one lavish palace wasn't enough. In 1878 he finished building Linderhof Palace and barely paused for breath as in the same year he began work on Herrenchiemsee. Both are grand, fantastic creations – Linderhof based on a French chateau and Herrenchiemsee based on nothing less than the Palace of Versailles - and both were for his own private fantasies.

And even as work on Neuschwanstein continued, he had plans for an even greater vision, a Neuschwanstein-plus, on the sight of nearby ruins called Falkenstein. This design was courtesy of the man behind Neuschwanstein's look, the stage designer Christian Jank.

Would this ever have been built? It's difficult to say. The architects in charge of Neuschwanstein did a pretty good job at building a real life version of Jank's drawing so there's no reason to believe they couldn't have done the same with Falkenstein. But a far bigger obstacle was in the way: money. Neuschwanstein costs had spiralled to over 6 million Goldmarks by 1886 and Ludwig II was 14 million Marks in debt. It's difficult to translate that figure directly, but we may safely assume it's the equivalent of several hundred million pounds. By April 1886, a gas and water company that Ludwig owed a hundred thousand Marks took him to court. Ludwig was becoming desperate. He ordered servants to go around the world asking leaders for loans. He even ordered them to rob a bank! In the end, Ludwig had to crawl to von Bismarck for help. "What do I do?" Bismarck told him to appeal to the Bavarian parliament. They, with the grace of the Bavarian people, would allow his debts to be paid and his projects to be finished. But government ministers disagreed, feeling this would irrecoverably damage both his and the crown's reputation. Ludwig's response? He tried to appoint his barber, who had become one of his main advisors, to government and to dissolve parliament altogether. A major political crisis was brewing. It soon boiled over.

For some years, Ludwig II had been increasingly unfit for purpose. As his castles had risen, he'd retreated into his operatic, medieval fantasies, stalking about his vast, empty premises. Servants were ordered to ignore him if they happened upon him in a hallway. He became increasingly isolated, except for short, intense relationships with young men. Likely, Ludwig was homosexual, but was forced to live in a state of denial. Adding to his turmoil, his lifetime obsession with beauty must have caused him horror when he himself became obese and ugly. He lost all his teeth, and was only able to eat soft or liquid food. Ludwig was living a tragedy, one fuelled by his own delusions. He'd began a kingship dreaming of knightly honour, but had lost his power, his pride, his independence, his nation, and the support of his government (although never, it seems, the loyalty of the Bavarian people).

In the early hours of the morning of June 10th 1886, a government commission arrived at Neuschwanstein Castle. Ludwig had been tipped off by a servant, and the local police arrested the commission but released them several hours later. For a couple of days there was a stand off between the commission and local people. Ludwig hid in the gatehouse. But eventually, a second commission arrived, and Ludwig was taken away. He was to be deposed on grounds of mental illness - by reputation rather than any formal assessment - and being unfit to rule. He was taken to Berg Castle to be detained.

The very next day, on the evening of June 13th, Ludwig went for a stroll with his doctor around the castle's lake. The doctor insisted no further company was needed. They never returned. Several hours later, their bodies were found floating. Ludwig was 40 years old. The official ruling was that Ludwig had killed his doctor then drowned himself, and marks to his doctor's head and neck appear to back this up. But the autopsy apparently failed to find any water in Ludwig's lungs, giving rise to a number of conspiracy theories. Did the doctor kill Ludwig and himself die in the attempt? Was there a failed rescue by loyalist troops? Did Ludwig kill his doctor but then die of a heart attack? We'll never know.

Ludwig had a suitably elaborate funeral in Munich on June 19th (where, it is possible, a young Albert Einstein may have been among the huge crowd, as he was then aged seven and living in a Munich suburb). Ludwig's brother Otto took over, officially, as king, but he was even madder than Ludwig, being obsessive, staying awake for days, wearing the same clothes for months - and barking. He was literally barking mad. So he was discreetly put aside in a palace for the next couple of decades while their uncle, Prince Luitpold, took over as regent. The royal family was abolished in 1918, at the end of the First World War.

Ludwig's death put an end to construction of Neuschwanstein, and his various other projects. Within a couple of months the castle was open to the public, and beginning the road to becoming a tourist attraction. Julius Hofman finished off various bits and pieces until 1892, but it was just finishing touches. Nothing new was started. The courtyard was supposed to feature a gigantic Keep, looming over all the other castle components, but this was discarded. The open courtyard works well though.

After our tour, and repeated again the next morning, Piltup and I took a wander to the nearby Marienbrucke, or Queen Mary's Bridge, named after Ludwig's mother. It predates the beginning of Neuschwanstein Castle, being built in iron by Ludwig in 1866, replacing a wooden thing built by his father. But it may as well have been built for modern tourists and their cameras. It offers the perfect view. Not only of Neuschwanstein, but of the whole area. This really is a beautiful part of the world. Just as the food in Bavaria is hearty and wholesome, so is the scenery, with mountains and lakes and rivers and forests, all bounteously soaring and spilling. What a splendid place.

It's often said that Walt Disney based the Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom of Disney World upon Neuschwanstein. A few other castles in Europe also get this claim also. It's not difficult to see why.

The thing is, I've visited the Cinderella Castle and it's very nice, but it's nothing more than an elaborate set design, a construction in the shape of a castle. Neuschwanstein Castle may have been designed by a set designer, but it's the real thing. It's fairytale but heavyweight. It is genuinely impressive. Standing in the village of Hohenschwangau or on Marienbrucke or by the Gateway, it seems unreal, not as a pastiche but as an actual vision. It has a dreamy sense of otherworldiness to it. Unlike a great deal of Wonders, I felt it was more impressive close up than from a distance. That's when the Cinderella element disappeared and it became clear this was a huge chunk of stone - no fibreglass in sight.

Many kings make their marks in different ways. Ludwig II wasn't a great king, but in Europe today he is perhaps one of the most remembered ones. He brought with him a romantic vision and built it in stone. His legacy is his castles, not just in the history books. Property had always been regarded as a safe investment for your money - safe as houses - and the same might apply for a person in history trying to assure his legacy. Until around the 1960s, Neuschwanstein Castle was regarded as rather kitch but enough time has passed for it to have assumed a more deserved role as a romantic vision. I bet many visitors see the romantic medieval vision and assume it is medieval. Yet, the reality of a mad, tragic king building it to his own peculiar lonely vision is even more appealing. Ludwig II ended up creating his own myth.

Some criteria then.

Size: It's 130 metres long, and the main tower is just over 79 metres high. These are the dimensions I'd expect of a Wonder.
Technical excellence: Would it have been possible in medieval times? Maybe, but it would have been a lot of work. Really, this is something that could only have been achieved by relatively modern 19th Century methods, and it was still a lot of work. Yet, I wouldn't say it necessarily pushed the boundaries of possibilities.
Artistry: It looks the very essence of a fairytale castle, and the few completed rooms are exquisite. In short, it's beautiful.
Age: About 130 years old, pretending to be a lot older.
Fame: Tourists, from all across the world, visit in great numbers. Yet it's been oddly eclipsed by its fibreglass pretender in Disney World, and its name isn't exactly a catchy one to remember in English (a shame, because the translated "New Swan Rock" or just "The Swan Castle" would be a lot more memorable).
Context: Truly gorgeous. The luscious, green, mountain setting is a joy. It's at the top of the peak, but backdropped by taller peaks on one side, and rolling countryside on the other. Ludwig certainly picked his spot.
Importance: It's a weird one. To begin with, it was just a solitary king's indulgence, with no great importance to anyone but him. But it's assumed a greater role, not just to the surrounding community, but in the way it's inspired the essence of the fairytale castle to the wider world.
Distinctiveness: Being a castle, it's not exactly unique, although it takes the usual castle template and ramps it up several notches.
Back Story & Mystery: A terrific, tragic tale of a lonely, mad king who dreamed of other times and created a romantic vision of the perfect medieval castle.
Photogenicity: It's a gorgeous castle with gorgeous scenery - it doesn't take any clever photography to capture this.
Wow Factor: You can see it for miles off, and from a distance it just looks like a pretty castle on a hill. It's as you grow closer and realise how big it really is, and how beautiful it is. I wouldn't say it gave me any particular Wow moment, but it remained a mesmerising view.

Sometimes when I visit a Wonder, I immediately know: this is a good one. With Neuschwanstein, it took a little - just a little - warming up. It's worth visiting Hohenshwangau village and castle first, absorbing the atmosphere, learning the tale of Ludwig. Once transported into this bucolic world (albeit one overrun with packs of tourists), the steep half-hour walk to Neuschwanstein leaves you breathless. It's a suitable state to be in for the castle. There's one thing to be a fairytale in the distance, but Neuschwanstein is one close-up too. Once I'd seen it close up, from various different angles, I was quite mesmerised. It's a castle, but it's no no normal. Neuschwanstein is grand, preposterous, and spectacular in its setting. Everything you could ask of a Wonder, in other words.

Where does it fit into the grand scheme of my Wonders, therefore? It's the best castle, that's for sure. Enhanced by its wonderful setting, it scores high up in my rankings, and I'd place it just above the ruins of Palenque, and just below Borobudur. And if you're still with me, and really read all that, then well done, I think that was my longest review to date.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Teotihuacan
6. Tikal
7. Mont Saint-Michel
Other Wonders
The Colosseum
The Eiffel Tower
Millau Viaduct
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia 
Chichen Itza
Sagrada Familia
Sydney Opera House
Neuschwanstein Castle
Golden Gate Bridge
Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Gateway Arch

Empire State Building
St Peter's Basilica
Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Statue of Liberty
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers
Mount Rushmore

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Hoover Dam
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Avignon Papal Palace
Tower Bridge  
Thiepval Memorial
CN Tower
Banaue Rice Terraces
Leshan Giant Buddha 
Verona Arena
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Marina Bay Sands
Ayutthaya Historic Park

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

Does Not Qualify/Exempt
Walt Disney World/Magic Kingdom

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.